Le Cafe des Epices, MarseilleThe concept behind Le Café des Epices couldn't be simpler: quality, imaginative food at affordable prices right in the centre of town. And the Marseillais, who don't much like pretension, certainly appreciate it.

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Since opening in 2003, this tiny restaurant has been in the vanguard of the city's bistronomic revolution. It's tucked behind the Old Port, between the Town Hall and the bottom of the Panier, or Old Town.

Le Café des Epices doesn't have views of the harbour. But it does look out on to the spacious and peaceful Place Bargemon, with its serried rows of olive trees in slightly surreal, oversized pots, among which the restaurant sets out tables on warm days and nights.

In summer it also organises a series of pop-up outdoor events with music and guest chefs, which have proved enormously popular with locals.

It needs the extra space. Inside, the dining room is minute, with a small covered terrace (advance reservation is recommended) and an equally compact open-plan kitchen where the head chef, the matinée-idol handsome Arnaud Carton de Grammont, and a couple of sous chefs work their magic.

Le cafe des EpicesThe decor is basic, with bright, acid-drop coloured folding garden chairs from the local DIY store, mercifully provided with cushions. And the short menu comes chalked up on a blackboard.

Born in 1971, Grammont started his career at the Michelin-starred Clos de la Violette in Aix en Provence under Jean-Marc Banzo, and subsequently travelled the world, from London to the Antilles, Lyon to Uruguay, San Diego and Washington.

All these influences are blended in his cuisine, which has dominant Mediterranean flavours with, as the name of the place hints, a spicy twist.

Our meal - unlikely to be replicated when you visit: the menu changes daily - featured a delicious brick (a savoury North African pastry) stuffed with lamb sweetbreads, mint and pine-nuts. The other starter was a slab of foie gras floating in a decadently rich cream of asparagus soup.

The mains were classic French dishes with a spin: a marbré (a small, sweet local fish) with spring vegetables, including dark purple carrots, and a melting lamb saute with haricots blancs in a piquant sauce.

The seriously greedy could round it all off with a sort of giant profiterole filled with creme perfumed with lavender and vanilla, or a strawberry nage with an intensely flavoured strawberry sorbet.

And, if you're on the other side of the Old Port, you might like to check out the ultra-fashionable Bar de la Relève, co-owned by Grammont who also supervises the catering there.

Visited April 2011

Where: Le Café des Epices, 4 rue du Lacydon, 13002 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 91 22 69.

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